TOY STORY 3
Threepeats may be rare in the sports world, but they're even harder to achieve in the cinematic realm. Yet here comes Toy Story 3, bucking the odds and satisfying sky-high expectations to emerge as the perfect final chapter in a trilogy that's guaranteed to live on for generations (to infinity and beyond?).
It's been a long time since 1995's Toy Story broke ground as the first computer-animated feature film, and nearly as long since 1999's Toy Story 2 was crowned by many as one of the few sequels to improve on the original (personally speaking, I find it too close to call). And in the interim, Pixar has proven itself so adept at making unique gems that no one would have faulted the company for resting on its laurels for this one occasion and grinding out a cash-cow sequel bereft of anything new.
But that's not how head honcho John Lasseter and his team play. Toy Story 3 is its own one-of-a-kind treat, and it's unlikely that I'll see another movie all year that does such a masterful job of mixing disparate emotions with all the speed and accuracy of a blender whipping up strawberry daiquiris.
In this outing, Andy is set to go to college and has to decide what to do with the few remaining toys from his childhood, all stuck in a box that has been gathering dust under his bed for years. Luckily for us, Andy's favorites are our favorites, so rest assured that all of the series regulars are back, including Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack). But the first heart-tugging moment comes when we learn that Woody's sweetheart, Bo Peep, is "no longer with us" -- audiences had best brace themselves for plenty more eye-moistening incidents.
Through miscommunication, the gang ends up at a daycare center, where the toy-in-charge, Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty), promises them a playhouse paradise. But things aren't quite what they seem, and Woody, ever loyal to Andy no matter the cost to his own future, plots a great escape. In true Toy Story fashion, this allows plenty of opportunities for Buzz to display his heroism, Jessie to show off her spunk, Rex (Wallace Shawn) to bemoan his lot in life, and Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and Hamm (John Ratzenberger) to let fly with the sarcastic remarks.
The strawberry-scented Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear is basically a better-smelling Stinky Pete (from TS2), but in other respects, this movie is careful to avoid repeating its predecessors. There are some memorable new characters (including the immaculately groomed Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton), and the four screenwriters -- Lasseter, director Lee Unkrich, Pixar vet Andrew Stanton and Little Miss Sunshine Oscar winner Michael Arndt -- superbly tap into the feelings all of us have encountered during our respective childhoods, when we employed our toys as a passageway to new worlds and new experiences. Toy Story 3 may look like a family film, but as it tackles issues of loss, identity and self-worth, it reveals itself as the most adult movie out there.
The Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio and Tim Burton-Johnny Depp partnerships have become famous in their own right, so why not the team of writer-director Nicole Holofcener and actress Catherine Keener? All four of Holofcener's films to date -- Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money and now Please Give -- have featured Keener heading impressive ensembles, and all four have proven to be smart, engaging watches. My only complaint? Holofcener only makes a movie every four or five years (in between, she's directed episodes of such shows as Six Feet Under and Sex and the City), meaning that a lot of terrific ideas are probably being left untouched on her computer desktop.
In Please Give, Keener stars as Kate, who runs an antique furniture store in New York City with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt). The couple buy their items from the kids or grandkids of elderly folks who have just passed away and have no use for the dearly departed's possessions. This morbid approach to business extends to their home life as well, as they've purchased the apartment unit next to them and plan to expand as soon as its 91-year-old tenant, the perpetually grouchy Andra (Ann Morgan Guibert), passes away.
Tending to Andra is her sweet and shy granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall); doing her best to avoid the old lady is Rebecca's tart-tongued sister Mary (Amanda Peet). All of these folks have problems, although the focus is mainly on Kate: A bleeding heart liberal who gives homeless people 20-dollar bills, Kate realizes the capitalist nature of her enterprise and is having trouble reconciling her work with her spiritual needs.
With the exception of Rebecca, nobody in Please Give is a saint -- in fact, most can be downright infuriating -- but that, as always, is Holfcener's strength as a filmmaker. Compare these wonderfully flawed, beautifully insecure and wholly believable characters with the preprogrammed mannequins seen in such chowderheaded efforts as, say, The Back-Up Plan or Killers, and the contrast is startling. Holofcener doesn't dumb her women down, but neither does she put them on pedestals. Instead, she treats her females (and males) as real people, and that's the highest compliment she could give them.
Fans of classic monster movies will see Splice and of course immediately think of Frankenstein. Connoisseurs of modern horror-science fiction mixes will check it out and be reminded of such works as Species and David Cronenberg's take on The Fly. But who could have possibly guessed that the film that served as its primary inspiration was apparently Ron Howard's comedy-drama Parenthood?
OK, so I'm being facetious, but the truth is that what initially appears to be yet another picture in which mortals dare to play God by creating life turns out to be more layered than that. In Splice, scientists and lovers Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), already successful with combining animal DNA to produce new life forms, opt to take their experiments even further by merging human and animal DNA. The result is a strange hybrid that, as with real infants, looks less sluggish and more humanoid as it grows older.
Initially unsure how to react, Clive and especially Elsa soon are treating the creature, now named Dren, as if she were their own child. And like any offspring, Dren (created through a seamless mix of special effects and actresses -- specifically, Abigail Chu in the toddler years and Delphine Chaneac in the teen-plus phase) sometimes has trouble with authority, to say nothing of the internal changes caused by being part human, part fish and part fowl.
A cleverly disguised expose on the challenges of parenthood, with riffs on abortion and the Electra complex thrown in for good measure, Splice is inventive enough that it's a real shame when it falls apart heading into the home stretch. A major plot development isn't sufficiently explored to be convincing (just as Re-Animator gave twisted new meaning to the expression "giving head," this scene creates a double entendre out of "getting into your work"), and the picture wraps up with the sort of conventional horror thrills and (snore) "ironic" ending that have pulled many a fine picture down. If director-cowriter Vincenzo Natali elects to splice together the body of this film with a new, better ending for the DVD release, I won't complain.